Culture

The Muslim Prom Queen and Me

THIS summer, I’ve traded in my usual hijab for a turban. The biggest consequence of this is not physical. It’s a matter of perception: I am no longer immediately identified as Muslim. I could just be protecting my hair from the outside elements or protecting the outside elements from my uncooperative hair. I could just be from some obscure African country — and coincidentally, I am. Or I could just be a little too obsessed with Zadie Smith.

The transformation is a success. Friends who have not seen me in a while do a double take, ask if I’ve lost weight. No one wonders if I am “hot in that” — in the summertime, this tops my hijabi F.A.Q. list — but someone does ask me if I am Caribbean. I bask in compliments and entertain runway dreams. Life is newly marvelous.

It is a shame that I did not discover this hack earlier. In high school, I was not a cool kid. I had always assumed that my modest appearance — an aesthetic disruption in a sea of girls sporting Lululemon leggings and crop tops — was at least partly to blame. When a hijabi named Zarifeh Shalabi was elected prom queen in Fontana, Calif., last year, I was just as surprised as the rest of the world.

At the time, my own prom adventures were not going as well as Ms. Shalabi’s. While her friends were rallying to get her elected against the odds, mine were proving exceedingly useless in the struggle to somehow coerce my high school crush into asking me to prom in the few moments we shared in between second period United States history and third period A.P. macroeconomics.

And far from being reassuring, the flurry of headlines only confirmed what I already knew. To be both visibly Muslim and conventionally popular in a Western setting is practically to be an oxymoron. It is possible but almost inconceivable, like the giant python that swallowed an Indonesian farmer whole a few months ago or the quadruplets who got accepted into both Harvard and Yale this year. It is an occasion that screams for international media coverage.

I graduated from high school last year. But the Muslim girl at prom did not — does not — exist in a vacuum. She becomes the Muslim woman on a college campus, at the office party. The Muslim woman in America, breathing American air, occupying American public space and generally making the mind-blowing political statement of being an American. It is no surprise that under so many eyes, she cannot fit in.

My own prom story is infinitely more believable than Ms. Shalabi’s. I continued to entertain some hopes about the aforementioned crush. Some “Never Been Kissed,” “She’s All That,” “Pretty in Pink” type of hopes. Because what is lost in the conversations about Islam and terrorism and media representation is that a teenage girl is a teenage girl. When her high school heartthrob asks someone else to prom, she will be — without fail and without exception — devastated.

(His pick is objectively adorable because she is objectively tiny and also objectively white. She is as small and subtle and gentle as a subscript. She giggles prettily, and in my eyes, her most defining feature is that she is not me.)

I resolve not to attend prom. I reach this conclusion alone, in a second-floor bathroom stall. I look into the mirror as I wash my hands, and as I take in my reflection — big and brown and covered; bearlike — the shock hits me. I cannot believe that I had lost sight like this, had pictured the two of us together as if such a disruption could exist, and as if my prom experience should be anything other than peripheral.

I am not immune from using religion as a scapegoat, but I know now that if I hadn’t shown up to school in a hijab that day — or any other day, for that matter — the outcome would have probably been the same. Things do look so much more attainable on the side where the Lululemon leggings and crop tops are, where you can find your reflection in romantic comedies, and where it is possible to keep religion and politics out of it because your religion and politics are not wrapped around your head. Wearing a turban is almost like crossing over. It is unsettling that a reshifting of the same cloth on the same body can be so radical.

It strikes me one day that perhaps my transformation is a regression. Why else am I willing to overlook the real problem — that even liberal Americans tend to approve of Muslims on a case-by-case basis, tend to like their Muslims as non-Muslim as possible, tend to think themselves entitled to this choosiness? Why else does my compromise with God come so easy?

Partly because of peer pressure, I end up going to prom. I am without the heartthrob and with a hijab, but I make it. I remember the dance floor most clearly. Sometimes my classmates pull me into their dance circles; sometimes I allow it and sometimes I don’t. I am wearing a baby-pink dress from J.C. Penney and a matching full-sleeved undershirt because nothing is modest enough on its own. Standing almost straight in my too-tight heels, I am fully covered and fully there.

This post originally appeared on the New York Times, written by Romaissaa Benzizoune

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